Donald Trump hounded the Justice Department to pursue his false election fraud claims, according to testimony Thursday to the House panel investigating the Capitol riot.
That included striving in vain to enlist top law enforcement officials in his bid to stay in power and hosting a dramatic Oval Office showdown in which he weighed replacing the agency’s leader with a more compliant lower-level official, the Jan. 6 panel heard.
Three Trump-era Justice Department officials recounted a relentless pressure campaign from the president, including day after day of directives to chase unsupported allegations that the election won by Democrat Joe Biden had been stolen.
The officials described the constant contact as a stark breach of protocol for a department that cherishes its independence from the White House but said they swatted away each demand because there was zero evidence of widespread voter fraud.
“For the department to insert itself into the political process this way, I think would have had grave consequences for the country that very well may have spiraled us into a constitutional crisis,” said Richard Donoghue, the acting No. 2 official in the final days of the Trump administration.
The president, he said, had this “arsenal of allegations. I went through them piece by piece to say, no, they were not true.”
Another witness, Jeffrey Rosen, who was acting attorney general, said he was called by Trump or met with him basically every day from the time he ascended to the post in late December 2020 through early January 2021, with the common theme being “dissatisfaction about what the Justice Department had done to investigate election fraud.”
It all added up to a “brazen attempt” to use the Justice Department for his own political gain, said Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat and co-chairman of the Jan. 6 committee.
“Donald Trump didn’t just want the Justice Department to investigate,” Thompson said. “He wanted the Justice Department to help legitimize his lies, to basically call the election corrupt” and to appoint a special counsel. The Justice Department resisted each demand.
As in past hearings, the committee focused on lawmakers who’d aligned themselves with Trump’s efforts. On Thursday, the panel played recorded interviews of Trump aides saying that multiple Republican members of Congress requested pardons in the days after the violent riot at the Capitol.
Testimony also centered on a tense Oval Office showdown on Jan. 3, 2021, in which Trump contemplated replacing Rosen with a lower-level official, Jeffrey Clark, who wanted to champion Trump’s bogus election fraud claims. Donoghue and another senior Justice Department official, Steven Engel, warned Trump that there would be mass resignations at the department if Trump followed through with his plan. Only then did Trump relent.
Clark’s name was referenced early in the hearing, with Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican, deriding him as a lawyer whose sole qualification was his fealty to Trump. A lawyer for Clark did not return an email ahead of the hearing.
Barely an hour before the hearing began, it was revealed that federal agents this week searched Clark’s Virginia home, according to a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to discuss it by name and spoke on condition of anonymity. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney confirmed the existence of law enforcement activity in Virginia, where Clark lives, but would not say what it was connected to.